Scott Postma

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The Destiny of the Unevangelized

College papers are usually boring (unless you are a geek–like me) and few care to read them.

But a recent Facebook Post from a ministry colleague got me thinking about a college paper I wrote a couple of years ago on the controversial topic of the destiny of the unevangelized.

In the post, my friend wrote,

“God is not bound to operate within standards of rightness that have been defined by a fallen race with whom nothing is right.”

In other words, man’s sense of justice fails on the grounds that his rationale is skewed by his sinful nature. Therefore, he has no ability, or place for that matter, to judge the actions of God.

That’s not to say humanity has no capacity to evaluate and hold standards of rightness among ourselves, but our standards of rightness fall far short of God’s perfectly just standard of rightness. It’s like letting a T-baller swing at Randy Johnson’s fastball. It’s a fool’s errand with a deadly outcome.

Futhermore, the fact that God is who he is means his actions, whatever they may be, are only always right because he is the source of rightness.

So when it comes to sensitive topic of the destiny of the unevangelized, instead of trying to come up with a work around, or seeing God as unjust by our standards because we don’t like his way, we should consider who has the ability–and the right–to judge what is right and what is wrong.

That being said, following is a paper I wrote on the varying views among Christians on the destiny of the unevangelized.

The paper is presented in its original format. I’ll warn you now it’s much longer than a typical post and quite formal in it’s tone. But I wanted to share it with the hopes of discussing what the Scriptures reveal about how God deals with the unevangelized.

 

Introduction

There could not possibly be a more sensitive topic than the eternal destination of a person’s soul. Yet it is a topic that pastors are frequently confronted with due mainly to the nature of their vocation. But it is also a topic that should be answered by any person who professes Jesus Christ as Savior. In his general epistle to Christians in the early church, Peter exhorts: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15). So how does a pastor or believer approach the question of the eternal destination of someone’s non-Christian loved one with gentleness and respect when the Bible makes it very clear that “…this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12)?

For many evangelicals the response is to appeal to the justice and mercy of God, avoid answering the question at all costs, or simply grit one’s teeth and affirm the understanding that the unbelieving loved one has perished in the fiery flames of Hell for all of eternity. Interestingly, none of these would be the answers provided by a growing number of professing evangelicals who differ in their understanding of what happens to the person who never hears of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Some of the answers given may include a second opportunity to hear the gospel after death, or an affirmation that a loved one may be in Heaven despite never having heard a clear presentation of the gospel message.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the four prevailing views among evangelicals as to the destiny of people who never hear the gospel message, demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of those four views, and finally explain which view seems to make most sense as it pertains to scripture and logic. 

The Four Popular Views

In their book, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology, Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy explain, “When it comes to answering the question of the destiny of the unevangelized…at least four views on this matter have emerged among evangelicals.”[1] There are actually three basic categories theologians fall into regarding the issue: pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. But as Boyd and Eddy explain, “pluralism—the belief that Jesus is only one of the many possible saviors—has been universally rejected by evangelical Christians.”[2] So it remains that within the last two categories there are four views worth considering. There are “three types of exclusivism…known as restrictivism, universal opportunity, and postmortem evangelism.[And] [t]he final perspective is a form of inclusivism (italics belong to the author).”[3]

The first type of exclusivism, called restrictivism, is the belief that only those who personally put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are indeed saved. In other words, “salvation is restricted to those who have heard the gospel and have made a conscious decision to accept it.”[4] Ronald Nash, “an Evangelical Baptist philosopher and apologist in the Calvinist tradition,”[5] defines restrictivism “as the belief that (1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and (2) explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation.”[6] Restrictivism asserts two fundamental suppositions that must be reasoned with. The first denies there is any other savior except Jesus Christ. The second denies there is salvation apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ.

The second type of exclusivism, called the universal opportunity view, is like unto restrictivism, but is conditioned by two distinct truths. Boyd and Eddy are helpful here: “First, the Bible teaches that God is all powerful…Second, the Bible teaches that God wants everyone to be saved.”[7] The universal opportunity view posits that God knows the heart of a potential believer and because He does not delight in the condemnation of any person, he will do whatever it takes to get the gospel to that person. According to the proponents of the universal opportunity view, no one will be lost simply because they were born in the wrong time or the wrong place.

The third view is called the postmortem evangelism view. The proponents of this view believe that if a person was not “irreversibly set” on rejecting Christ when she died, nothing in scripture indicates God will not continue his attempts at winning that person to himself. Ronald Nash defines the view as “everyone who has not had a chance to hear the gospel in this life (before physical death) will be presented with the gospel after death.”[8]

The fourth and final view under consideration is the inclusivist view. The inclusivist view is similar to the exclusivist view in that it maintains the redemptive work of Jesus Christ is necessary for the salvation of sinners. However, it is different from the exclusivist view in “that while Christ’s redemptive work is ontologically necessary for salvation, it is not epistemologically necessary.”[9] The inclusivist believes a person does not have to have explicit faith in Jesus Christ to be saved. Stated simply, one may say that while it is necessary for Jesus to die on a cross for sinners, salvation can be accomplished without the sinner’s objective faith in Jesus Christ.

While all four belief systems have some biblical merit among evangelical theologians, it can be argued only the restrictivist view is scripturally and logically sustainable. It will be demonstrated that the universal opportunity view, the postmortem evangelism view and the inclusivist view all fail to meet the test of scriptural analysis.

 

The Failure of the Universal Opportunity View

The universal opportunity view finds a vast amount of support within evangelical Christianity, and is likely the most espoused view, even if not taught explicitly. Additionally, it is the most sustainable of the positions outside of restrictivism. The belief that God does all he can to save the lost who are seeking him is appealing. The consensus among the majority of Christians is that God is a loving God who desires to save all of mankind, and is limited only by man’s own unwillingness to trust Christ. Therefore, it is up to the sinner to seek God, and for all who do, “God will find a way to save that person.”[10] The following arguments are provided to support this idea.

First, many hold to the understanding that church tradition affirms this view. “Thomas Aquinas, Jacob Arminius, and John Henry Newman advocated this perspective.”[11] Second, many feel it is the most reasonable view as it “is the only position that is able to affirm with logical consistency God’s loving character while also holding to the necessity of belief in Jesus.”[12] Finally, and arguably the most persuasive argument, is the universal opportunity proponents’ appeal to scripture. They assert scripture is on their side by quoting passages that insist God wants all men to be saved, like 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; and Hebrews 11:6.

While all of these are persuasive arguments to a degree, a closer examination of their suppositions will prove otherwise. For instance, it can also be argued that many of the church’s theologians ascribed to the restrictivist view of exclusivism. Men like Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Cornelius Van Til asserted that God is sovereign in salvation and that to say he is simply doing all that he can do—but is failing much of the time because of man’s geographical location or because of his sinful will—limits the omnipotence and sovereignty of God. In the next place, to say that the universal opportunity position is the only position that affirms God’s love while maintaining the necessity of the redemptive work of Christ is assumptive at best. It could readily be argued that God does not owe any man salvation and any undeserved offer of the gospel to any person at any time in history is reflective of his graciousness and loving-kindness. Universal opportunity proponents, in response to this particular argument, maintain we should prefer a sense of justice “that looks just to us.”[13] However, this begs the question and further fails to account for the skewed sense of entitlement that comes with the fallen nature of man. Finally, while the strength of the universal opportunist’s position is found in his scriptural assertions, a strong argument can be made for a different sense of what passages like 2 Peter 3:9 actually mean. For example, it can be argued that “any” and “all” within the passage’s context refer to the elect. Additionally, the prescriptive will of God is not always the decretive will of God. In other words, just because God desires all to be saved, does not mean there are not good reasons unrevealed to humanity for his choice to save only those he elects. Scripture speaks to this understanding: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The main objections to the universal opportunist’s view are, however, both a lack of adequate evidence for the position as well as a failure to understand the fundamental issue of man’s total depravity. That is, no person will ever want to be saved until God first works to regenerate his or her dead spirit (Ephesians 2:1, 8-10 cf. 1 John 4:19). Thomas Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is helpful on this point:

Belief is still the result of the effectual call and regenerating power of God. As Jesus taught Nicodemus, ‘Ye must be born again.’ This is not an action we perform upon ourselves but one that the sovereign Spirit performs upon those dead in trespasses and sins.”[14]

For the universal opportunist to assert that someone who has never had the opportunity to hear the gospel would likely want to receive the gospel, given the opportunity, is overly optimistic of man’s unregenerate nature. 

The Failure of the Postmortem Evangelism View

The second view under consideration, the postmortem evangelism view, or PME, as it will be referred to subsequently, is the belief that those who have not been given the opportunity to hear the gospel and trust Christ as Lord and Savior in this life, will be given that opportunity in the next one. Additionally, a nuanced perspective of this view would include those who may have heard and rejected the offer, but have not irreversibly rejected the Savior. According to its proponents, this view is rooted in “a logical inference from God’s love and Christ’s victory over the grave…”[15] Further support for the view is gathered from a number of scripture passages, not the least of which is 1 Peter 3:18–20 and 4:6. The Apostle writes:

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water…for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”

The arguments evolving from the logical inference of God’s love and Christ’s victory notwithstanding, the PME view loses much of its scriptural support when the above passage is understood in a different light than presented by its adherents. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore all the possible meanings of the text—and no doubt, it is an obscure one. (Martin Luther said of it, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”[16]) But the idea of this passage teaching the unevangelized will receive a second opportunity to hear the gospel is contrary to the context of Peter’s whole message. Peter was writing to motivate the believers under fiery persecution to remain faithful as a testimony of their faith in Christ. Thomas Schreiner explains the problem with the PME view in light of the text’s meaning: “It makes no sense contextually for Peter to be teaching that the wicked have a second chance in a letter in which he exhorted the righteous to persevere and to endure suffering.[17] What motivation would there be for Peter’s audience to persevere unto the end if there was a second opportunity at salvation after death? The best understanding of this passage, as purported by a vast number of scholars, is that the proclamation of Christ’s victory over demonic spirits is in view.[18]

The predominant problem with the PME view, however, is the lack of substantial support for such a controversial position. For example, the lack of any credible theologians in church history teaching and defending the view marks it as suspect. Additionally, begging “a possible interpretation” of a few ambiguous passages is questionable hermeneutics at best. And finally, a question remains that is yet to be answered by PME proponents, What is the point of the Great Commission if a second chance awaits those who have never heard—or have heard without an ear to hear?

The Failure of the Inclusivist View

The inclusivist view asserts “people can not be saved apart from Jesus, but they can be saved apart from knowing they are saved by Jesus.”[19] Those affirming this view will usually reason from two axioms. The first is the particularity axiom. And the second is the universality axiom. “The particularity axiom focuses on Jesus Christ as the only mediator of salvation…By the term universality axiom inclusivists mean that God intends his salvation to be available to all humans.”[20] In essence, inclusivists affirm “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”[21] But they do not affirm that, “…Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…”is necessary for every one.[22] For the inclusivist, faith in general revelation is just as effective as faith in specific revelation when only general revelation is available. Thus, inclusivists will often differentiate between Christians and believers.[23]

Interestingly, inclusivism has had a pretty impressive list of adherents over the years. The following is John Sander’s list of who he calls “likely adherents” of the view: “G. Cambell Morgan, Edward John Carnell, C.S. Lewis, Bernard Ramm, Bruce Lockerbie, George Eldon Ladd,William Dyrness, J. Herbert Kane, and J.N.D. Anderson among others.”[24] While most of these men have made great contributions to the field of theology and to the kingdom of God, the best of men are men at best. As scripture aptly warns the believer: “Great men are not always wise…”(Job 32:9, KJV).

Inclusivism certainly has an appealing quality as one considers the fate of the unevangelized. It appeals to the human sense of justice that God saves on the basis of a person’s sincere response to the general revelation available to them. Unfortunately, if it is the case those sincere believers in general revelation can be saved on that basis alone, the scriptures are silent on the matter; and further, any missionary endeavor would only complicate the issue. It can be well argued that just the opposite is true; evangelism is not only encouraged, it’s commanded.

The scriptures are full of examples where sincere believers in general revelation still needed the gospel to be saved. Take the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, or Cornelius in Acts 10, for example. Both responded sincerely to what they knew and yet God sent a missionary to preach the gospel of Jesus to them. Or consider the premier example of the Apostle Paul. Saul of Tarsus was a man who was not only sincere, but zealous for the truth as he understood it. He was a Hebrews of Hebrews, and a zealot for the righteousness of God. Yet, he still needed to believe the gospel of Jesus or he would have been lost forever. [25] Inclusivism, while having an impressive list of adherents, lacks any serious biblical support for the view.

A Case for the Exclusivist View

Recall Christian restrictivism is “the belief that (1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and (2) explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation.”[26] Restrictivism, sometimes called Christian exclusivism in the proper sense, denies there is any salvation outside explicit faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Rather, adherents believe these tenants of the Christian faith are true and “any other religious beliefs that are logically incompatible with those tenets are false.”[27] This narrow view is the primary contention many pluralists, inclusivists and psuedo-exclusivists have with restrictivists. To the former, the later makes the God of the Bible out to be unfair and intolerant. But scripture and theology are in the restrictivist’s favor.

In the first place, the Bible affirms the restrictivist’s beliefs in an overwhelming number of cases. (It is probably better to say that the restrictivist comes to his position because of the overwhelming biblical evidence.) A handful of examples should be adequate. Mark records Jesus as preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”(Mark 1:15 cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Luke asserts: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). John is more than articulate about the matter, stating not only is there is eternal life for those who believe, but condemnation for those who do not:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”[28]

Further examples include Peter’s call for the Jews to repent “promising forgiveness and the Spirit to whoever called upon the Lord.”[29]

Paul, speaking of the reconciliatory work of Christ, declares: “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”[30] It would certainly seem strange for God to appeal to the unreconciled, to “be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ” through his ambassadors, if there was no need of the unreconciled to respond to God’s call to be reconciled. In other words, why would Paul say the believers are now ambassadors to the unreconciled, if those same unreconciled could be saved without explicit faith in Jesus Christ, or by general revelation, or even after they died? John Walvoord comments on this: “Provisionally, reconciliation was accomplished once and for all by Christ on the cross and the whole world was potentially reconciled to God. Reconciliation becomes actual and effective in the person of believers in Christ at the time of their salvation.”[31] In the context, Walvoord’s phrase “at the time of their salvation” means when the said person explicitly puts his or her faith in Jesus Christ.

In the second place, the biblical, orthodox view of Christology, logically commits a person to restrictivist exclusivism. If Jesus Christ is truly the incarnate Son of God who came to the earth specifically to die on the cross to pay the debt of sinful men and rose bodily from the tomb, as Nash says, “it is difficult to see how anyone can believe it is impossible to attain salvation apart from him.”[32] Further, Paul makes it clear that it’s not the act of atonement alone that saves (that is ontologically), but one must confess Christ as Savior (requiring epistemological knowledge of the act) to receive salvation. He says, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[33] Many theologians agree that in this passage Paul is teaching, as Jesus did (Matthew 10:32-33), a public confession of one’s faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. W.A. Criswell, famed pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, addresses the issue of confession in his book, Great Doctrines of the Bible, Volume 5., Soteriology. He says, “In our hearts, we believe unto a God-kind of righteousness, and with the mouth publically confess our faith in Him (sic) unto salvation, and He (sic) makes us righteous in the Lord. Then confession then must be open and public.”[34] Again, it’s difficult, in light of the clear teaching of Scripture, to see how one can confess Jesus as Savior without any knowledge of him and his redemptive work.

Conclusion

While the discussion of the destiny of the unevangelized is far from over, the evidence provided in this paper demonstrates those who do not hear the glorious gospel of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the atonement of human sin, and believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths Jesus as Savior, will be lost without any hope of redemption. The argument for a universal opportunity fails mostly in that it does not account for the depravity of man. The argument for a postmortem evangelism of the unregenerate has virtually no scriptural support. And the argument for an inclusive salvation—that the response of mankind to general revelation is salvific on the ontological grounds of Christ’s atoning work—was found wanting of either scriptural and theological support. It must be determined then, that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

[1] Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy. Across the Spectrum:Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009),199

[2] ibid, 198-199

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] “Theopedia.” http://www.theopedia.com/Ronald_Nash (accessed December 10, 2012).

[6] Ronald Nash. Is Jesus the Only Savior. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 11

[7] Boyd and Eddy, 202

[8] Nash, 149

[9] Ibid

[10] Boyd and Eddy, 203

[11] Ibid, 204

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, 204

[14] Thomas J. Nettles. By His Grace and for His Glory. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 295

[15] Boyd and Eddy, 206

[16] Thomas R. Schreiner, vol. 37, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 184.

[17] Ibid, 188.

[18]  Ibid

[19] Boyd and Eddy, 209

[20] Nash, 105

[21] ESV, Acts 4:12

[22] ESV, Acts 16:31

[23] John Sanders defines believers “as all those who are saved because they have faith in God,” and a Christian as “a believer who knows about and participates in the work of Jesus Christ” (Nash, 122-123).

[24] Nash, 108

[25] ESV, Acts 9 and Philippians 3

[26] Nash, 11

[27] Nash, 12

[28] ESV, (John 3:16–18).

[29] R.E.O. White. “Salvation.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, 1050

[30] ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:19–20

[31] John Walvoord. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1969, 178

[32] Nash, 18

[33] ESV, Romans 10:10-13

[34] W.A. Criswell. Great Doctrines of the Bible: Volume 5, Soteriology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985, 76


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boyd, Gregory, and Paul Eddy. Across the Spectrum:Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Criswell, W.A. Great Doctrines of the Bible: Volume 5., Soteriology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Lutzer, Erwin. The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate

Christians. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Nash, Ronald. Is Jesus the Only Savior. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

Nettles, Thomas J. By His Grace and for His Glory. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Vol. 37, 1, 2 Peter, Jude. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.

 Themelios: Volume 23, No. 3, June 1998. United Kingdom: The Gospel Coalition, 1998.

“Theopedia.” http://www.theopedia.com/Ronald_Nash (accessed December 10, 2012).

Walvoord, John. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1969.

White, R.E.O. “Salvation.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

About Scott Postma

Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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